Tuesday, August 26, 2014

On Racism, Ferguson and a Widening National Divide


I'm a white gal and I am now speaking to the other white folk , who post comments around the web such as "it's not a race problem, it's a sin problem".

Isn't racism a 'sin'?  And do we not have a duty to address our collective sins as much as our individual ones?  And does not changing the language from 'racism' to 'sin' make it really be about nothing - as in, if it's about nothing, it requires nothing to change?

My point is this - when it's about my sin (and racism is about my collective sin) it's my job to stop it, change it, confess it, rather than to rename it, jump into the 'we're all sinners pool' and grab my automatic forgiveness token.  That is what Bonhoeffer (rightly, I think) would call cheap grace.

And when we white folk speak about due process, about 'getting all the facts', about looting and rioting, I want to gently suggest that perhaps we are trying to change the subject, for it is indeed a painful one.  Might we white folk not better spend our time in what others have challenged us to do -- to listen and to learn?

I cannot speak to the experience of someone in whose shoes I have not walked if I do not take the time to listen.

There's a video going round (sorry, don't have the link) of a young black teenager in Ferguson - he's writing protest in chalk on a gas station's pump when a young adult black man speaks to him, challenging him to not do it with chalk (it disappears) and not do it there (defacing the property of another).

The young man makes a sign, joins the protest and the question he's written on his sign haunts me, as it should, "Am I next?"

If a police officer kills a young white man, the fact is that justified or unjustified, necessary or excessive, the question will rise and fall on its own merits, BECAUSE our society can and does take it as a given that he was NOT killed because he is white.

The facts of this case will develop over time in the ways of due process.  BUT we are not allowed, I would posit, as white folk, to dismiss our history as if it has no bearing.  It does.  And that history continues today.

The privilege that I enjoy as a white woman is that I don’t have to think about giving my son THE TALK.  But I should have -- my son is of mixed race and he paid a dear price for my own ignorant assumptions.

And regardless of the facts as they continue to develop, based on what we do know -- a young unarmed black man was shot and shot at repeatedly (as in shoot to kill) – should we not as a society be pondering why we have allowed a situation where our keepers of the peace (now more popularly referred to as law enforcement officers) are moving away from policing and towards soldiering?

That our laws allow and condone and thus encourage deadly force against a person who is not a deadly threat simply because one is a law enforcement officer?  How we don't account for adrenaline pumping bad judgment when we put one officer alone on patrol with no one not only to back him up, but also to check him and his judgment?

How we white folk by and large aren't even willing to consider, let alone talk about, the factor of race in the snap decisions police officers are required to make and how we can counter that?  (read Malcolm Gladwell's book 'Blink' and one of its later chapters on the police killing of an unarmed man in New York and how their fears and prejudices could make them mistake his body motions as indicative of having a gun where a different context - ie, a different neighborhood, a man of different color - would have led to a different and less deadly, result).

How we presume that it is necessary for our populace and our police to be armed?  How things are handled differently when guns aren't in the mix?  (as in, why wouldn't one grown man in a conflict with another, even if the accounts which favor the officer are true, simply wait in his car and call for assistance in order to avoid the conflict turning deadly?)  As in, why wouldn't the one with the gun back down if his only other option were to kill another human being?

A justified shoot is one thing.  The cost to everyone of the loss of this human being is quite another.

I still have lots of listening and learning to do.  What strikes me now that we white folk seem to be missing entirely is that this isn't about (or not primarily about) whether the technical legal requirements were present or not for a so-called justified shoot.  It's about the violent loss of yet another young person of color who happened to be male when it didn't have to be that way.  It's about mourning.  It's about the anger that for someone like me, that day was just another day on planet earth, while for my friends of color, it was and is the same -- just another day -- but our days are so very different that it hardly bears the comparison.

That is not as it should be.  And I dare not pretend otherwise.

Time will perhaps reveal whether a police officer’s actions on a day in August in Ferguson, Missouri were legally justified or not.  But a young man is dead and that fact will cost the officer as well as the young man’s family, friends, neighborhood and society and it didn’t have to be that way.

When mistakes of judgment borne out of fear resulting in death occur, perhaps we would do well not to rush to make heroic that which is merely tragic.  And we might all listen a little more.  Including me.


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NOTE 1   I am, as I said at the outset, white.  I have many police officer friends.  It is a job I do not envy and would not have.  My own father, a long-time investigator in our local Prosecuting Attorney’s office, considered himself a policeman, a law enforcement officer, if you will.  In my lawyer days, I prosecuted and defended against claims of police brutality.  I hope I have made clear here that I do not intend to comment on the legal proceedings involving the killing of Michael Brown.  I presume these facts to be common, public knowledge: (1) Michael Brown was young, he was black, he was physically large and he was unarmed.  (2) Darren Wilson, who is white, was acting as a police officer at the time he shot Michael Brown.  (3) Darren Wilson was armed with a gun in his capacity as a police officer.  (3) the killing happened in daylight hours on a city street.  (4) there was a conflict between the two while Officer Wilson was inside his police cruiser which may have been instigated by Officer Wilson or by Michael Brown.  And (5) Michael Brown was shot multiple times.  And I presume that Officer Wilson was no more right than he was wrong in his actions merely because he is a police officer.

NOTE 2   See this link to a BBC interview of an African American police woman from the St. Louis area.  Read her comments about fear-based responses and how we’re failing to talk about that.  And note the photograph of police officers dressed in the camouflage fatigues of soldiers, wearing gas masks and kitted out in full military combat dress as they confront a civilian on the streets of Ferguson.  Then ask yourself how Wall Street (who has way more looters than any street in Ferguson) would react to the appearance of tanks and soldiers in front of their offices requiring them to fall to their knees and prove their good intentions on command.  The militarization of police nation-wide is something that has happened without national discussion or decision and now seems to be taken as a given.  And understand that police philosophy is that if, as an officer, you are going to unholster your gun, it is because you are prepared to shoot to kill and it is supposed to be your last option.  Then consider that when adrenaline is pumping, when you’re angry and most likely scared, just how able you are to make the best decision in the situation.  And then consider the question of race.  Because the question, perhaps, is not whether the officer was fearful.  The question is whether he would have been as fearful, as adrenaline-pumped, as angry, had the young man he confronted been white or simply not black.  And then, if you are white, ask yourself if you might answer those questions differently if you were a black person raised in these United States?  Maybe that will help us listen a little better from the other side of the racial divide.

NOTE 3   Today on FaceBook, there was a picture of some KKK members coming to Ferguson to protest on behalf of the officer.  The tag for the picture went something like, “now do you understand it’s about race?”  It caught my eye particularly because of recent experience in the Presbyterian Church (USA), of which I am a member, in its stance relative to divesting from certain companies doing business in Israel-Palestine in ways that advance Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.  As one might imagine, the church’s decision has been a controversial one.  But when David Duke, a former high-up in the KKK, came out in support of the decision, those on the other side of the question cited Mr. Duke’s support as evidence of the church’s anti-Semitism (as in we are known by the company we keep).  I reject that principle when it comes to my church and I reject it here: the police of Ferguson, MO, did not invite or encourage the presence of the KKK and their presence no more indicates that these police officers are racists than David Duke’s statements indicate that the PC(USA) is anti-Semitic.  But maybe I’m missing something.

NOTE 4   Thousands peacefully protest and the news reports virtually nothing of it.  A few loot and it is the headline of the day.  If you are white, ponder that reality as you grapple with police interactions with people of color.  I like to think that the cops I know are reflective of most police officers -- people simply doing their jobs the best they're able, equally respectful of those they encounter regardless of race.  But one bad cop, like one looter, gets a disproportionate amount of attention and poisons the well of perception for many.  If your store was looted, chances are all you would think about would be the looters.  If your son or daughter were wrongfully stopped or harassed, chances are that would paint the picture for you of all police.  Do you see how it works?  If all you're seeing as a white person is looting, you're closer in experience to the black people of Ferguson than you might like to think and maybe you can understand their feelings a bit better.  The big difference is that looters get taken away.  Police officers who based their behavior on race generally don't.

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